By ALICIA LEONARD
A group of concerned business owners, citizens and local civic leaders came together on the afternoon of Aug. 28 to discuss potential ways to get people to venture beyond the U.S. 331 turn lane and into historic downtown DeFuniak Springs. One of the biggest hurdles the group discussed was getting tourists to continue to the downtown area rather than staying in the turn lane headed to south Walton, and to discover the historical richness DeFuniak Springs offers.
President of the DeFuniak Springs Business and Professional Association(DPBA) Sara Comander, along with members of the DBPA invited people from every walk of life to join them for refreshments, and a brainstorming session to improve the visibility of local businesses.
One focus group Comander spoke of attracting to the area was “Baby Boomer” retirees that usually have a large amount of liquid assets and look for a slower pace of life in smaller towns upon retirement. Most Boomers spend up to 90 percent of their income locally, and often volunteer and become involved in local organizations, bringing a cultural richness with them as well as the economic equivalent of 2.7 factory jobs according to statistical data.
City Block Grants (CBG) could be one venue open to the area, said Cliff Knauer with Preble Rish. The group was responsible for helping the Port St. Joe community a few years back upgrade their downtown area with two CBGs. “Just putting the electric utilities underground made a huge difference to the area. They widened sidewalks, and enhanced the storefronts. Now, it’s a walking destination for many. People park in the outside area of the town and walk on foot to see all the shops,” Knauer told the group.
DeFuniak Springs City Manager Sara Bowers spoke about a program called Main Street, saying it would take some time to get the process going but it could be something that would benefit business owners in the future.
Some of the grants and programs have to service economically challenged groups for the city to receive them, and some are more likely to be rewarded if the city has done its leg work and the project is “shovel ready,” according to Knauer.
All of the business owners said they wanted to be a part of positive action through the group and with the city’s help improve business downtown. Some said the last three years have been harder than most and they also felt as if the relaxed sign ordinance might have hurt the city more than helped. The biggest issue some felt was the U.S. 90 corridor that gave visitors their first feel for the town when entering from North U.S. 331; they felt it should be more inviting. Problems with getting the Florida Department of Transportation(FDOT) to regularly keep up the right-of-ways was another issue discussed. The city cannot cut the medians and some other areas along the roadways due to FDOT regulations.
The simple act of cleaning up in front of some businesses and maintaining empty buildings would help, some business owners suggested. Comander encouraged owners to make sure their outside areas were inviting. The DBPA has had many group cleanups for businesses in the past and discussed another clean-up day for the future.
One gentlemen mentioned that one of the first things big businesses look for when relocating is a vibrant downtown area, citing that their employees would want the quality of life this environment would offer.
Another idea offered by DeFuniak Springs City Councilman Mac Carpenter is a smart-phone application called Next Exit. The app would let visitors traveling through the town know about historic markers and downtown areas when they started to enter the city. “We have a great opportunity here, we just need to learn how to direct it. To show them what we have to offer,” Carpenter said of the large groups of people traveling through the city.
The meeting seemed to re-energize many to work together and grow the business community to all corners of the city, inviting ideas and concerns from not just those businesses located downtown. They discussed another meeting to shore up some dates for some business beautification through cleanup, with a possible meeting to be held on Sept. 16.
To see more about the DBPA go to www.thedbpa.com or look for the group on Facebook to get the meeting times and dates for the organization.
By ALICIA LEONARD